The Word


The spread of a regional quirk

By Jan Freeman
August 2, 2009

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I SPENT LAST WEEK in Ohio, catching up with family, and the very day I arrived, my mother said something like this: “We get our fresh vegetables at Schild’s anymore.”

I might not have noticed it, but as it happens, I had just received an anxious e-mail on the subject of “positive anymore,” as the usage is called. “It struck me as very strange,” recalled John Fogle, who first heard it at college in Ohio, several decades ago, and it still sounds odd today. Worse yet, he said, “It seems to be gaining acceptance. Horrors!”

But there’s no need for Easterners like Fogle to be horrified. Positive anymore isn’t such a radical departure from the recognized-everywhere uses of anymore, with negatives (stated or implied) and in questions:

I can’t remember names anymore. (I once could.)

You rarely see this kind of heroism anymore. (You once did.)

Do you play hockey anymore? (You used to; do you still?)

Positive anymore also means “nowadays,” but it reverses the assumption about past behavior: “Anymore, I play a lot of tennis” says that you didn’t in the past, and now you do.

The usage has long been considered a feature of the US Midland dialect regions, spreading south and west with the migration of settlers. But Fogle’s suspicion, it seems, is correct: Positive anymore “appears to be spreading,” the American Heritage Dictionary says in a regional note.

Even if it’s new to your neighborhood, the usage is no upstart. According to a 1998 entry in the online Mavens’ Word-of-the-Day series, positive anymore dates to the 1850s in America, and it has been quite common since the 1930s. The usage “is also found in parts of Ireland, and some linguists have suggested that it is of Irish or Scots-Irish origin.” And it’s not a hick expression: “it is used by speakers of all educational levels.”

The tradition-minded Northeast, the Mavens’ report says, is the region most reluctant to adopt positive anymore. That’s not especially surprising. Still, you’d think the people who embraced “so don’t I” as an expression of enthusiastic agreement might find room in their hearts and vocabularies for another useful oddity.

. . .

FURTHER AGGRAVATIONS: A few weeks back, I wrote about the aggravate debate - can it mean “annoy,” or should it mean only “worsen”? - after the question came up on the New York Times’s usage blog, “After Deadline.” The sample sentence under scrutiny said that President Obama had “aggravated powerful players in Congress {hellip} then moved to assuage them.”

It was the word assuage that aggravated Maria Sachs of Belmont. “Did no one squawk about that?” she asked in an e-mail. “One assuages feelings, not people.” And in fact, several commenters at the Times had squawked - or at least gently questioned the propriety of applying assuage to individuals, rather than to their concerns or conditions.

I had paused, myself, over the usage: Surely we assuage hunger, thirst, grief, and guilt, rather than the people who experience them? But no: It’s also legitimate to assuage the afflicted person, and has been since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Assuage, meaning “calm, appease, soothe” - it’s related to suave - was even used intransitively, once upon a time. The OED quotes the King James Bible (1611): “the waves assuaged.” And Wordnik, the new word website, links to an account of a settlement in Manitoba in the early 19th century: “On the 22nd of May the waters commenced to assuage.”

That usage is no longer current, but people are still frequently assuaged: Just last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs addressed the question of the president’s Honolulu birth certificate: “If I had some DNA, it wouldn’t assuage those that don’t believe [Obama] was born here.” It’s a minority usage, but it’s far from obsolete.

. . .

BUYER’S MARKET: Frank Biondi of Pittsburgh notes that though dictionaries still list the original definition of consumerism - “consumer protection” or “actions to secure the rights of consumers” - today we use the word mainly with its second meaning, “materialism, or obsessive consumption.” He wants to know: “Who stole its proud heritage?”

The online OED, which revised its consumerism entry in June, offers some clues. Its earliest example of the “bad” consumerism comes from a 1960 issue of the American Catholic Sociological Review, deploring consumerism as “consumption for consumption’s sake.”

Based on that date, I’d guess that the word’s change in meaning was simply following the money. Once Americans began to think of spending as recreation rather than a risky necessity, the “consumer protection” sense lost its relevance; to critics of the booming retail culture, consumers needed protection from themselves, not from greedy producers. Who stole consumerism? Nobody: We traded it for the glorious mess of postwar prosperity.

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